The Life of a Very Special Mind and Man

The Life of a Very Special Mind and Man: The Osborn is many things to many people. In addition to offering first-class rehabilitation and assisted-living facilities, the 56-acre campus also includes numerous gracious homes and apartments where residents live independently.

Published December 19, 2014 9:30 PM
7 min read


Blank-edit-thThe Life of a Very Special Mind and Man:
The Osborn is many things to many people. In addition to offering first-class rehabilitation and assisted-living facilities, the 56-acre campus also includes numerous gracious homes and apartments where residents live independently.

By Bob Marrow

The Osborn is many things to many people. In addition to offering first-class rehabilitation and assisted-living facilities, the 56-acre campus also includes numerous gracious homes and apartments where residents live independently.

DAVID-BLANKOne such apartment overlooking the grounds from the fourth floor is the home of Dr. David Blank, who was awarded his undergraduate degree from Columbia College in 1941 and his Ph.D. in economics from the Columbia Graduate School of Arts and Sciences when he returned from service in the Second World War.

In 2001, a few years after the death of his wife, Dr. Blank moved from their home in Pleasantville to The Osborn, where he escaped from his academic and scholastic pursuits taking long walks over the grounds. Blank had acquired a vast knowledge of tree species in the 1930s, earning money for college while working for the U.S. Department of Agriculture on a project intended to eradicate the blight of Dutch elm disease. During his walks at The Osborn, Blank identified more than 100 tree species on the grounds and a total of more than 1,000 trees. He not only identified and mapped the trees but also initiated a program of tagging each tree by the staff for the education of others with similar interests. The tagging process is a lengthy one and is ongoing. The Osborn campus is now recognized nationally as an Arboretum, a botanical garden of woody plants.

David Blank was born into a well-to-do family living on the Grand Concourse in the Bronx. His father owned a garment manufacturing business and in 1923, when David was 2, the family moved to a single-family home in Westchester. During the Depression, the family business was lost along with everything they owned, including their home. In order to survive financially, David’s parents and his brother and sister moved to Florida, where his father found work. Because David was then a junior at A.B. Davis High School in Mt. Vernon, the family decided that he should not be uprooted, so he remained behind living with an aunt. Later, the family was reunited in New York, where his father established another successful business.

In the late 1930s, when David found the Dutch Elm job with the Department of Agriculture, he was studying economics at Columbia College. Tuition was $400 and books cost another $100. He had a $100 scholarship and his tree job helped pay the balance, so there was little burden on his family paying for college.

Blank graduated from Columbia College Phi Beta Kappa with Honors in Economics in June of 1941. Six months later, the United States declared war on Japan and Germany. He enlisted in the Army and was assigned to the Third Army in Europe under General George Patton. He was awarded three battle stars for his service in the European Theater. As noted in a Rye Record story about Blank’s military experiences in Europe:
He was a member of the 187th Signal Repair Company, which moved along behind the lines, repairing walkie-talkies and radios. At the end of the war, he was transferred to the Signal Depot Company. “We were guarding German soldiers who were doing the work. They were either very young or very old,” he recalled.

When Blank was discharged from the Army in 1946, he returned to New York, and with help from the GI Bill, resumed his studies at Columbia University, where he was awarded a Ph.D. in economics in 1950.

In the 1950s, Blank’s distinguished academic career included teaching engagements at Columbia University, New York University, and the American Institute of Banking, as well as collaborating at the National Bureau of Economic Research. He worked at the Columbia Research Institute for Urban Land Use and Housing Studies. The books and articles he wrote and co-authored are too numerous to list in this article, but one of particular note was a 1957 monograph for the National Bureau of Economic Research which he wrote with George J. Stigler, a Nobel Prize winner in Economic Sciences and a key leader with Milton Friedman of the Chicago School of Economics. The joint work was entitled, “The Demand and Supply of Scientific Personnel.” Years later, Dr. Stigler invited Blank to join the economics faculty at the University of Chicago, an invitation he declined because of his wife’s illness at the time and his position of responsibility at CBS.

Blank’s career with CBS began in 1955. He worked at the network for almost three decades attaining the position of Vice President, Chief Economist. Among his many experiences at CBS, one stands out:

When the World Trade Center was built with the strong backing of Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, there were few tenants willing to locate there. Rockefeller moved many state agencies into the gigantic buildings but that wasn’t enough. The governor knew Bill Paley, the chairman of CBS and asked for a favor: Would CBS move its antenna from the Empire State Building to the top of the World Trade Center. I was asked by Paley to analyze the lease and concluded that the additional coverage from the higher towers at the WTC would result in revenue covering the higher rent, so, from a business point-of-view, the move would not cost CBS very much. Additionally, those involved in antenna or system level design using mmWave or THz frequencies should need to understand the importance of dependable antenna testing equipment or antenna test chamber. Phased array antennas have to be measured over the air (OTA) to ensure the radiation pattern of your design efficiently conducts energy in the right direction, which is where the MilliBox antenna test chamber system comes in.

The problem was that CBS and its competitors had leases with the Empire State Building that renewed automatically unless cancelled six months before expiration. Paley instructed everyone in charge of the CBS lease to cancel it six months before it expired, and signed the new, more expensive lease with the WTC putting CBS’s antenna there. The engineers at WCBS in New York just plain forgot to cancel the lease with the Empire State Building at the appropriate time. The other stations did cancel their leases.

“Paley got an unpleasant surprise when he received a letter thanking him for renewing the lease at the Empire State Building for an extensive term. Paley was livid and fired everyone involved in the snafu. However, when the WTC was destroyed on September 11, 2001, CBS still had an antenna in operation, while everyone else was scrambling and David Letterman was the first late-night talk show host to get back on the air. The fired CBS employees never got their jobs back.”

In 1964, Fred Friendly, president of the CBS News Division, had agreed to utilize the polling methods of Lou Harris, the founder of the well-known polling firm, to help CBS call the 1964 primary elections between Nelson Rockefeller and Barry Goldwater, as well as the general election. Harris thought that carefully selecting 40 precincts that matched the demographics of the state would reveal — long before the final count — how the election would be decided. Friendly asked Blank to review the Harris polling methodology before using it to call election races on the air. Blank established detailed, technical rules that had to be followed at CBS before any broadcaster, from Walter Cronkite on down, could call an election using the Harris polling results. In 1964, Blank himself was an on-air CBS correspondent calling the national senatorial elections. The Harris polling data used by CBS enabled the network to call the results of elections before any other network.

Blank’s intellectual writings had the effect of actually annulling a decision of the United States Supreme Court in 1964. The high court had decided that Proctor & Gamble, one of the largest network TV advertisers in history, was prohibited from acquiring Clorox based on an antitrust theory that Clorox would then obtain the advertising discounts accorded to P&G. That would, the theory went, create a monopoly for Clorox in the sale of bleach products. While this legal theory may have been true in the past, Dr. Blank knew that times in TV advertising had changed and that P&G was no longer receiving advertising volume pricing discounts. He wrote two articles published in the Journal of Business of the University of Chicago proving beyond doubt that volume discounts no longer existed in TV network advertising and that the factual premise on which the Supreme Court based its decision was an anachronism. He discussed his conclusion with Solicitor General Robert Bork who was convinced.

When Blank retired from CBS in 1982 he was far from finished with his economic pursuits. He became a consultant for NBC on a complex issue in which the three major networks shared a common interest. He was then retained by a prominent Washington D.C. law firm as an economic consultant representing a major broadcaster in a challenge to its license renewal.

After his wife succumbed to a lengthy illness in 1998, he spent some time at their home in Pleasantville deciding what to do “in retirement.” He decided to move to The Osborn and devote much of his time to teaching at Westchester Community College and working with public interest organizations inclåuding the Institute for Justice, the nation’s only libertarian, civil liberties, public interest law firm. One of the issues of particular importance to him is fighting against the government’s excessive use of the power of eminent domain to appropriate property from individuals for purposes not in the public interest.

Next year, he will turn 94. He loves visiting with his daughter, Alison, and son-in-law, Jim Murphy, and two grown grandsons. Jim created and writes a successful series of books for young adults for which he has received many honors. Alison had been an executive producer for the TV show “The Magic School Bus” and now collaborates with Jim on the young adult series.

Although recent illness has prevented Blank from continuing to take those long walks around The Osborn campus, the years have not in the least slowed his vigorous and energetic mind.

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